The Great Blacksby – the literary hero you never noticed
Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby‘s been in theaters for a couple weeks, and it is a truly divisive talking-point amongst moviegoers. While some appreciate the sleek visuals and pervading splendor, others believe that the film isn’t grounded enough to give a fair representation of the novel. No matter which camp you find yourself in, chances’re good that if you’ve read the book or seen the movie you’ve spent some time slinging ideas about.
Such is my situation.
Allow me to be forthright – I believe that The Great Gatsby is an absolutely perfect novel. I’ve spent countless hours reading, discussing, and writing about Fitzgerald’s magnum opus, and yet I still find myself stumbling into new terrain. Of course, whenever I think I’ve find a rock worth turning over, I make a point to shout at anyone who’ll listen.
A couple years ago I posted Nick Carra-Gay?, an exploration of the possibility that the novel’s narrator is gay. Whether or not you go for the theory, it generated some great conversation.
In the hopes of generating similar discussions, I’ve taken a grad school paper I’ve just completed and rearranged it for the OL audience. Give it a read and then hit up the comments section to share your thoughts. I’m not sure if my argument’s got legs to stand on, but at the very least it’s evocative.
After all, the idea at hand is that Jay Gatsby is actually a black guy.
I now present – The Great Blacksby – The Literary Hero You Never Noticed.
Since its release in 1925, The Great Gatsby has been regarded as an absolute masterpiece, a true exemplar of American literature. In the collective mind of the popular audience, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal work is worthy of admiration because it is an incredibly well-written Jazz Age piece about one man’s attempt to escape socioeconomic conditions (by which so many are shackled indefinitely) so as to win the affection of his dream girl. From this perspective, the novel is an examination of not only the power of love, but also classed inequity and the hunt for the ever-elusive American dream.
While this superficial reading of the text (risqué-enough-to-intrigue and innocuous-enough-not-to-offend) allows for high school English departments and film studios to continuing investing time and money into the novel, digging into the more deeply ensconced content proves to be a far more illuminating endeavor.
Once a reader recognizes the crafty subversion of the Jay Gatsby alter-ego, it becomes clear that this is a novel dedicated to exploring the nature of elusive self-constructions.
The implication currently at hand is that by investigating the ways in which the characters of The Great Gatsby are presented, present themselves, and perceive one another, one may come to see that the novel fits comfortably on the bookshelf typically reserved for Harlem Renaissance fiction. In other words – F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is a passing novel.
Consider, for a moment, the idea that even a surface-reading can establish the titular figure as one who is passing. After all, one of the biggest revelations of the novel is the fact that Jay Gatsby, millionaire playboy and old money-extraordinaire, actually spent his nascent years as James Gatz, poverty-stricken farm boy. It was only after Gatz made the conscious decision to change his identity that he was able to thrust himself into the criminal underground and attain his fortune.
Without this new persona, there would have been no access to the life he so desperately sought. Now once this context is established, it is anything but a huge leap to see Gatsby passing not just in terms of class, but race as well.
So if gay-Carraway is our appetizer, then the main course is black-Gatsby.
Delving even further into the rabbit-hole, the most intriguing notion of all is that Gatsby and Carraway are not performing constructed identities for other characters, but for readers as well. Perhaps The Great Gatsby is so poignant because there are multiple constructions operating at once, and these can be unconsciously felt even if they are not consciously identified.
At the risk of coming across as crass, one might discuss the possibility that Gatsby and Carraway are actually the safe, innocuous secret identities of Blacksby and Carragay – figures that average readers love to engage with, even if they don’t know it.
But to uncork such a lofty tasting of Fitzgerald’s prose-wine, it is wise to first begin by examining a moment in which the novel explicitly reveals its implicit dissidence. While driving across a bridge into the heart of New York City with Jay Gatsby, narrator Nick Carraway takes note of a sight that he finds most unusual. He recalls, “As we crossed Blackwells Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laugh aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry” (Fitzgerald 73).
Nick finds this to be a curious moment because the sighted automobile represents a subversion of the racial hierarchy of the times, with the white chauffeur catering to the black passengers. However, this simple observation of novelty is transformed into a proclamation of possibility, as Nick continues, “‘Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,’ I thought…Even Gatsby could happen without any particular wonder” (Fitzgerald 73).
Although taking up no more than a half-page of space, this moment is absolutely rife with the subtext that intimates to the reader that The Great Gatsby may very well be a passing novel of the same ilk as those produced by the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. After all, the parallel being drawn is between Jay Gatsby and the black passengers. And yes, it is true that one could present the counterargument that Nick comments on the carful of African Americans being driven about by a white man simply as a means of conveying the unusual, near-impossible quality of Jay Gatsby’s self-fashioning. But the consequent rejoinder is that Nick could have chosen any far-fetched-but-possible scene to serve as a parallel for Gatsby’s ascension, but ultimately chose one of black passengers being driven by (i.e., having dominance over) a white chauffeur. As a result, deep within the reader’s mind a seed is planted that begins to sprout the suggestion that perhaps, just maybe, Jay Gatsby is not just like those black citizens who have managed to succeed within a white world, but that he is such a black citizen.
Before forging ahead with the premise that Jay Gatsby is the construction of a black man who is passing in terms of race, it is useful to first reaffirm the fact that the figure is passing in terms of class. Through the voice of Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald informs his readers that the air of resplendent mystery surrounding Jay Gatsby is rooted in origins of the most humble sort. Nick describes the life lived as James Gatz: “His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people – his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all…So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end” (Fitzgerald 104). This account is enlightening on a number of fronts, explaining that “Jay Gatsby” is not only a guise, but one conjured into existence by an individual of the most idealistic sort.
In an archetypal teen’s mind, still relatively unfettered and devoid of “practical” considerations, anything is possible. To James Gatz, this means shedding the skin of an indigent farmer from North Dakota and becoming something more.
And to a confused black kid of the early 1900s, the misleading more might be white.
Although the keeping of secrets and dissemination of misinformation is at the heart of any tale of shrouded identity, passing novels are marked by the specific application of these aspects to the obfuscation of physically-identifiable racial qualities. In Nella Larsen’s Passing, there is absolutely no doubt that Clare Kendry is able to ingratiate herself into the privileged white echelons by manipulating her racially-ambiguous physical characteristics.
…she’d always had that pale gold hair, which, unsheared still, was drawn loosely back from a broad brow, partly hidden by the small close hat…The face across the forehead and cheeks was a trifle too wide, but the ivory skin had a peculiar soft lustre. And the eyes were magnificent! dark…Surely! They were Negro eyes! mysterious and concealing. And set in that ivory faceunder bright hair, there was about them something exotic. (Larsen 28-9)
This scene depicts a moment of clarity for Irene, who is astounded to realize the ease with which Clare shapeshifts phenotypically, simply by downplaying those characteristics which would be likely to “out” her as African American. Moreover, Irene is advantaged in that she knows Clare is passing; as a result, she is able to distinguish between the shrouded features (i.e. the eyes) and the highlighted features (i.e. fair skin and blonde hair). Consequently, it is Irene’s position that one would hope to assume if attempting to detect an individual with agency to move between racial identifications.
As such, when readers exchange their comfortable, hegemonic lenses in favor of those of a savvier, more racially-aware composition, perhaps the very style worn by Irene Redfield, Jay Gatsby is read as having phenotypical traits that out him as passing. Nick, observing a clear view of Gatsby for the first time, states that “His tanned skin was drawn attractively tight on his face and his short hair looked as though it were trimmed every” (Fitzgerald 54). Why is it that Nick chooses to identify Gatsby by his skin color and hair styling? Well, perhaps it is because these are the characteristics, even more than his hidden origins or ghostlike vanishing acts, suggesting that an act of passing is underway. As is the case with Clare Kendry, Gatsby’s black traits are only observable by those who are on the lookout for them; since Nick Carraway himself is passing (we will get to that in a bit), he is able to see that Gatsby’s skin is more than just tanned, and his hair must be trimmed every day so as to avoid the texture which would associate him with African Americans.
Granted, one could argue that this illustration of Gatsby’s skin and hair could be no more than a reflection of where the character was at that juncture of his life – sun-kissed by summer days and wealthy enough to be professionally groomed on a daily basis. However, the night before his murder, Gatsby mentions that he never used his pool once during the summer, which (although not proving) suggests that his skin tone may not be a product of sun exposure (Fitzgerald 161). Furthermore, even the seventeen year old incarnation of the character is described as having anything but fair skin, as the narrator declares that Gatsby had a “brown, hardening body…” (Fitzgerald 104).
Given the prominence of color-use The Great Gatsby – the green light on the Buchanans’ dock, the yellow murder-mobile, the ash-grey denizens of the Valley of Ashes – the repeated sketching of Jay with darker hues must be examined thoroughly.
With allure of a passing novel being tied into the self-fashioned character’s ability to pull wool over eyes, there is always the potential for conflict in an antagonist’s discovery of the ruse. Passing makes tremendous use of this potential by having Clare Kendry be married to Bellew, a vitriolic man with an intense hatred of African Americans. Larsen’s narrative device is especially adept at eliciting tension, as Clare is thrust out of the frying pan and directly into the fire; it is with disconcerting nonchalance that Bellew makes public statements such as “I draw the line at that. No niggers in my family. Never have been and never will be…I don’t dislike them, I hate them…They give me the creeps. The black scrimy devils” (40).
As might be expected, Clare’s trajectory into white culture is wavered with her husband’s discovery of her mixed ethnicity playing a role. Unfortunately, Bellew’s run-of-the-mill racism pales in comparison to the abhorrence he projects after learning about Clare. Bellew smashes into the room his wife is in, allowing his hatred to escalate into new terrain as he screams, “‘So you’re a nigger, a damned dirty nigger!’ His voice was a snarl and a moan, an expression rage and of pain” (Larsen 111). With this occurring only moments before Clare fatally plunges out of a window, the corollary is that a passing individual is killed – spiritually, emotionally, or even literally- when discovered.
If a racist character utterly aghast upon learning of an acquaintance’s ethnicity can be said to facilitate the narrative of a passing novel, then Tom Buchanan does wonders for The Great Gatsby. Much like Passing’s Bellew, Tom Buchanan’s very introduction establishes him as a veritable manifestation of racism, a virtual representative of the dominant culture from which he spawned. Nick notes that Tom’s physical presence emits an aura of subjugation, narrating,
Two shining, arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body…It was a body capable of enormous leverage – a cruel body. (11)
This portrait of prejudice incarnate is complemented by an emphatic dinnertime conversation in which Tom attributes all of society’s woes to a failing of the white race to successfully oppress all others. He goes on to tell his guests that his beliefs are supported by a book he read, asserting that “‘…everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved…It’s up to use who are the dominant race to watch out or these other races will have control of things’” (17).
In a straight-forward reading of Gatsby, Tom’s pseudoscientific beliefs are written off as another expression of Tom’s status as a member of the over-privileged elite, just one more means reaffirming his conviction that he belongs atop everybody else. Moreover, the responses Tom elicits with his ranting about race show the reader that nobody is on board with him – Nick says nothing, Jordan Baker tries to change the subject, and his wife Daisy makes fun of him.
But what if Daisy chides her husband not just because she is in a loveless marriage and cannot stand him, but because she has actually loved a member of one of the races Tom detests. If Daisy Buchanan did not marry Jay Gatsby because he was not (only) poor but black, there is a whole deeper level of pathos to the narrator’s observation of how she responds to her husband: “‘Tom’s getting very profound,’ said Daisy with an expression of unthoughtful sadness” (17).
Approaching from this vantage point, the sadness experienced is not just a product of marital discontent or general exasperation, but Daisy’s deeply-rooted (maybe even unconscious) knowledge that the lost love of her life is African American. To reframe, the idea is that not only does Daisy have to live with the fact that she sold her soul for a life of luxury, the Devil she dealt with unknowingly reminds her of this simply by spouting off his bigoted nonsense.
Just like John Bellew, Tom Buchanan sees his fermenting intolerance explode after getting hip to the truth. It is towards the beginning of the seventh chapter, right after Tom realizes that his wife has been sleeping with Gatsby, that he tells Jordan and Nick he has investigated Gatsby’s past.
After spending much of the chapter getting frustrated in the heat of a summer’s day in New York City, the characters have a tumultuous showdown in which Tom reveals that he knows of the affair, and then shares some of the secrets about Gatsby that he has uncovered. Although Tom does not explicitly accuse Gatsby of passing, his response to Daisy’s attempt to calm him down is incredibly telling. It is at this juncture that Tom screams, “‘Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white’” (137). Tom, an adulterer known to cross socioeconomic strata in his affairs, is not vehement because Daisy is cheating on him, nor because she is cheating on him with someone of humble origins, but because she is having sex with Gatsby…and he’s black.
And this is the inspiration that allows Tom to intuitively, reflexively, unabashedly point George Wilson’s bloodlust towards the mansion across the water.
So why is it that the popular discussion of Jay Gatsby’s cunning duplicity always ends with the “rags to riches by any means” conclusion? How come those who teach The Great Gatsby never ask students to go one step further when examining Carraway’s narrative reliability, into the terrain of the sexual?
Well, perhaps it is because these conversations can be extremely uncomfortable, opening up cans of worms that many would rather keep shut. However, there is also the chance that average reader does not look at Gatsby as black and Carraway as gay because the characters are masterful in their deceptions, fooling not only others in the text but those who hold the text in their hands – the popular audience. But this does not mean that the deception isn’t occurring, or even that these readers will never be able to spot it – they just need to know what to look for. In Passing Irene could spot Clare’s methods, and in The Great Gatsby Nick could see through Gatsby’s subterfuge, and in time more readers may be able to join in.
At the end of the day, The Great Gatsby is a wonderful story presented in elegant prose, and it can be celebrated as such. However, anyone who reads the tale, whether or not they know it, becomes a witness to acts of passing that may challenge fragile sensibilities. The truth is that the most triumphant act of passing that F. Scott Fitzgerald is not that of James Gatz becoming Jay Gatsby. While this is a certainly a great bit of plot-twisting, even Gatsby’s cunning deception looks childish when put next to the one Fitzgerald sank deep within the subtext. Even if readers don’t realize it, or aren’t willing to accept it upon realizing it, the true heroes of The Great Gatsby are a pair of literary iconoclasts, structure-defying rogues who attempt to fashion their existences into the stuff of dreams.
The heroes of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece are Blacksby and Carragay.